In ”The Gift,” Keanu Reeves tore into the role of a violent wife abuser with gusto. Unrepentant aggression had replaced his usual Zen-zombie affect, and the change of style looked great on an actor who, in a continuing effort to scruff up his own beauty, has made a career of inhabiting characters for whom heroism is a demand, not a choice: the cop in ”Speed,” the football player in ”The Replacements,” the candidate for manly rehab in ”Sweet November.”
In Hardball, Reeves plays Conor O’Neill, another weak-spined specimen (he’s got gambling issues) who becomes a better man in spite of himself. This corny life-affirmer about one white guy’s spiritual redemption at the small hands of black kids on an inner-city baseball team is loosely based on the real experiences of writer Daniel Coyle, who coached in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green projects. But the movie is so littered with clichés of genre, as well as clichés of artifice in Reeves’ pained performance, that any semblance of social reality goes foul.